This is a story about sports, history, and one man’s quest to revive a celebration commemorating the two.
Charles Avison’s Champions Day quest begins in April 1936.
To any Detroiter with an eye on sports, April is a special time of year. It’s when the Tigers take the field for Opening Day, the Red Wings more than likely continue their amazing consecutive playoff appearance streak, and maybe, just maybe, the Pistons will battle it out on the hardwood to secure their own playoff berth.
But April 1936 holds a special place in Detroit sports history. It was the month that capped off the remarkable 1935-36 sports season that saw the Tigers win their first World Series, the Lions bag their first NFL championship, and the Red Wings capture their first Stanley Cup.
Not to mention it was the month in which Joe Louis and no fewer than 23 other Detroit teams and individual athletes were honored with a celebratory banquet at the Masonic Temple.
It was an official toast to Detroit victory, complete with a proclamation signed by Michigan Gov. Frank Fitzgerald designating April 18, 1936, as Champions Day for the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.
And yet, despite the declaration, the banquet, and a plaque bearing the signatures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and all 48 governors in the Union saluting Detroit as “the City of Champions,” the date is largely unknown to even the most die-hard Detroit sports fans. That is, until Charles Avison.
Chances are, if you’ve heard of Champions Day, it’s because of Avison. Over the past eight years, he’s made it his full-time job to share the story of the 1935-36 sports season in Detroit, authoring books, articles, and even the lone Wikipedia entry on the subject, all in support of what he considers “not only the greatest season that ever has happened … but also the greatest season that ever will happen.”
Give him 10 minutes, and he makes a pretty convincing case. No surprise. He’s been developing one for years.
While a senior at Western Michigan University in 2005, Avison stumbled upon a trivia question that asked which season the Detroit Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings all won their first championships.
Despite being a Michigan native, longtime sports fan, and history student, Avison had never known the championships all came in the same season. The question prompted him to write a two-page paper on the subject, but he got hung up in the research stage. He couldn’t find any books on the so-called “City of Champions” season, nor could he find sufficient material online — not even enough to support a two-page paper.
Avison’s quest evolved into a thesis on the season, then a self-published book, then two more books, then a magazine. According to Avison, he’s told the story at least 80,000 times at colleges, art shows, libraries, bars, and more. He never intended on getting so attached to the subject, but dive into the history, and it’s easy to see the appeal to any sports fan, let alone a sports historian.
In October 1935, the Tigers won their first World Series. In December, the Lions won their first NFL championship, having only recently moved here to associate themselves with the recent success of the Tigers (hence the naming of the team after another jungle cat). In April 1936 the Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup, and a day later, the Detroit Olympics, the Wings’ minor league affiliate, won their championship in the International Hockey League.
Meanwhile, in the world of individual sports, Joe Louis’ rise to international stardom earned him the Associated Press’ 1935 “Athlete of the Year” award, and a slew of Detroiters from legendary golfer Walter Hagen to the sharpshooters on the Detroit Police Department’s pistol shooting team won titles in their respective sports.
Come April 18, 1936 at the Masonic Temple, everyone from tennis pairs and billiards players to speedboat racers and bowlers were lauded for their recent achievements. Players from the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings attended the banquet; Joe Louis was the guest of honor, and more than 600 fans convened to revel in the successes of their sports heroes.
If there’s a moment that marks the beginning of Detroit’s reputation as a sports town, this is it.
A Victim of War
Despite the festivities of 1936, Champions Day seems to have been a one-time celebration. When the date rolled around again in 1937, there’s no evidence it was observed again — none that Avison has found, anyway. Why? The historian has his theories.
“When Champions Day was created, they didn’t really put the mechanism in there for it to be celebrated as a yearly event,” Avison says. “It was kind of left in limbo. The sentiment was ‘We’re celebrating now, and in the future you can do whatever you want.’ They had the legislation for it, a remarkable party, but they had more pressing concerns.”
These were the types of concerns that trivialized the accomplishments of any sports star, no matter how grand in scale or in number.
“The mindset of people in this era was moving towards war,” Avison says. “You’re in the middle of the Great Depression and the first mention of the words ‘World War II’ came in 1934. It’s not lost on these people … there’s something very bad coming.”
The war came and went, and even when the Tigers won their second World Series in October 1945, just a month after Japan’s official surrender to the U.S., sports history in the City of Champions remained an afterthought.
“People remembered the story,” Avison says, “But then came the 1950s. The auto industry’s coming back, everybody’s got jobs, they’re living this magnificent sports decade of the ’50s, so who’s going to say, ‘Let’s stop for a second, folks, and look back at the 1930s Great Depression story.’ ”
A Supreme Responsibility
Obsessed isn’t the right word to describe Avison’s dedication. Zealous is better. He knows the story doesn’t belong to him, but he does consider himself a “moral guardian” of it, a missionary who’s heeding the call to spread the word with historical accuracy.
“When I first discovered Champions Day, at first I was excited,” Avison says. “But then all of a sudden there was a sense of profound fear. I’m sitting there going, ‘I am the only one that knows about this.’ Now I have a supreme responsibility. The ultimate success or failure of this season coming back is now on my shoulders.”
The story of Champions Day might be rooted in history, but to Avison, there’s room for it to thrive in the present. It’s a story that deserves a comeback, not only for its role in shaping Detroit’s identity then, but now, as the city seeks to redefine itself in a post-bankruptcy era.
“Detroit is entering this period of a renaissance,” Avison says. “And a renaissance by definition was a rediscovery of the great stories and literature … and then taking that and building on it for other things. Such is the case now.”
So far, however, modern-day Detroit hasn’t latched onto the story as much as Avison would like. He’s not sure what he’d like to see in terms of a Champions Day celebration, but he also doesn’t think he’s the one to solve that part of the equation.
“I’m a reference point,” Avison says. “My role is to nail down the historical elements. I’m not an event planner. I’m not a promoter.”
Luckily for him, he’s no longer the only person interested in reviving Champions Day.
Champions Week Comeback
Last year, Will McDowell and Lauren Lewis, self-described Detroit nerds and sports geeks, organized the city’s first Champions Week. They’d caught wind of the Champions Day story while McDowell was building a mobile app featuring points of interest and historical tidbits about the city. Recognizing the magnitude of Champions Day, the two organized a series of events throughout the week of April 18 honoring Detroit sports past and present.
“It kind of started small,” Lewis says. “It was a very grassroots effort, but as we started talking about the idea with friends, it started to grow.”
Champions Week 2014 included a pickup softball game at the site of old Tiger Stadium, a 5-mile pub run to five Detroit bars, and a tailgate party before a Tigers game.
Avison also presented his City of Champions story as part of the week’s celebrations, and overall the events were successful enough to warrant the return of Champions Week.
Events scheduled for this year include another pub run and Champions Night, a charity event held in association with the Autism Alliance of Michigan. McDowell and Lewis say they’re eager to see more celebrations throughout the week.
“We’re not hoping to grow our own Champions Week brand,” McDowell says. “We’re just hoping to get the word out enough so that different businesses, bars, stores, restaurants, anything in the city will realize that Champions Day is a big deal.”
You’d think that Detroit sports fans — let alone Detroit franchises — would jump at any excuse to revel in something as triumphant as Champions Day. But history is a fickle thing, and Avison knows as well as any historian that the stories of the past face a troubling paradox: Their significance depends on those who tell them in the present.
“Celebrations and holidays are only important if we choose to make it thus,” Avison says. “If we don’t care about them, they don’t mean anything, but I think that the greatest season ever is something that should be remembered.”
1935-36 Champions Day Sports Season*
Jan. 4, 1935
Ranked the 10th heavyweight boxer in the world, Joe Louis wins his first fight of 1935.
Eddie Tolan wins 75-, 100-, and 220-yard events at the World Professional Sprint Championship.
July 5, 1935
Dick Degener of the DAC defends his title at the National A.A.U. senior men’s swimming and diving championships.
Aug. 21, 1935
Gar Wood Jr. wins national outboard boat racing championship.
The Detroit Police Department wins the overall national pistol shooting championship.
Esther Politzer and Constance O’Donovan win National Public Courts Doubles Championship.
Fast-pitch softball team the Dixie Oils wins the George H. Sisler Trophy, emblematic of the U.S. Championship.
Oct. 7, 1935
Detroit Tigers win their first World Series, defeating the Chicago Cubs in six games.
Dec. 15, 1935
Detroit Lions beat the New York Giants at Titan Stadium to win their first National Championship.
Feb. 27, 1936
Jacob Ankrom wins national amateur three-cushion billiards title.
April 11, 1936
Detroit Red Wings win their first Stanley Cup, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs three games to one.
April 12, 1936
Detroit Olympics hockey team wins the IHL Championship. Then they moved to Pittsburgh.
*Timeline research courtesy of Charles Avison